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My two sons, ages eight and nine, and I have been vegan for five years. We love animals and feel a deep happiness knowing that we will not spend our money on anything that would increase their suffering. However, my children tell me ďMama, we can eat the cupcakes at birthday parties because we didnít buy the animal products, and it wonít lessen the animalís suffering if I reject this one cupcake.Ē It gets tricky because I really believe that when we demonstrate that humans do not need to eat animals, it will increase peopleís curiosity to learn more about veganism, and we become shining examples of compassionate humans. How do I get my kids to feel the same way? Each week there seems to be another birthday party or celebration at their school. The parents usually bring cupcakes; my kids get some kind of hard candy when what they really want is a fluffy cupcake with frosting. Usually, I will take them to the natural food store after school and buy them a vegan treat, but thatís expensive and involves an otherwise unnecessary trip to the store. What else can I do?
As a parent, you protect your children by teaching them how to stay safe so they can continue to make smart decisions when they are grown and on their own. Indeed, virtually everything parents teach their children is intended to help them now as well as later when they are more independent. This is no less true of instructing children how to make intelligent and compassionate food choices than it is of teaching them to look both ways when they cross the street. The primary difference is that food guidelines are not always as simple and clear-cut as safety rules or hygiene habits.
Using your childrenís rationale, there is no reason why they should not eat the hamburgers, hot dogs, cheese pizza, and ice cream at the parties, too, since they didnít buy the animal products themselves and avoiding them wonít lessen the animalsí suffering. If they both understand the familyís philosophical motivations for veganism, and are usually happy to be vegan, you might want to ask them what they see as the distinction between eating cupcakes but not eating the ice cream or hamburgers. It might provide some surprising insights into how they view this dilemma, what they are really thinking, and what is at the heart of their desires. You might discover that what they really want isnít the fluffy cupcake with frosting but to feel like they ďfit inĒ and arenít drawing attention to themselves.
Each vegan family must decide for itself where to draw the line regarding food outside of the home. Asking yourself some basic questions can help clarify your best options when these awkward situations arise:
- Is this predicament important to my children?
- What will my children learn from how we handle this?
- How will the consequences of this situation affect them--now and later?
- How can my children participate in the decision-making process so they will ďownĒ the outcome?
- Is the course of action respectful and fair to everyone involved?
Children are often very creative with solutions, especially when they are directly affected by them, so it is important to include them in the process. When young people believe that their feelings and point of view will be heard, respected, and taken into account, they are more willing to express themselves. They are also more inclined to hear their parents in return. Invite them to brainstorm their ideas, while you stay open to all the possibilities, no matter how outlandish they might seem at first. Sometimes the most outlandish suggestions turn out to hold a nugget of great promise.
Be prepared for your children to tell you that they think you are being too picky or are putting too much pressure on them. Perhaps they feel like misfits among their friends, or maybe their friends make fun of them but they are too embarrassed to tell you. Realize that what your children are experiencing is very real and significant to them, so let them air their viewpoints, and try to listen wholeheartedly. Then start thinking about some practical ways you could support them.
Coming up with positive solutions may require some flexibility on everyoneís part, but they donít necessarily have to compromise your ethics. One alternative is for you to make your own fluffy vegan cupcakes with frosting--enough for everyone at the party--and send them along with your children when they go to an event. An advance conversation with the teachers or the birthday childís parents can alert them to what you are planning and also give them an opportunity to offer to provide vegan options themselves so you donít have to. This can go a long way in thwarting any potential hard feelings that could arise, and it will also alert them not to be concerned that your children arenít eating the nonvegan treats.
Although children donít always understand why adults do what they do, they are usually open to listening to us if we are open to hearing them first, especially if we keep our explanations succinct. What matters most isnít that everyone in the family agrees, but that everyone is respectful of each otherís interests and perspectives. Maybe the most valuable outcome of this dilemma will be giving your children a chance to observe how sensitively you deal with perplexing challenges, how well you hear their concerns, and how generously you include them in the resolution process. It could be one of their most important vegan lessons of all.
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